Hard Questions, Tough Answers: Israel and the US Withdrawal from Afghanistan (July 19, 2021)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q: Does the American military withdrawal from Afghanistan directly affect Israeli security?

A: Not directly. US and NATO forces in Afghanistan did not confront declared enemies of Israel like Iran or even its proxies, Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. But the withdrawal from Afghanistan is billed by American security planners as part and parcel of a broader plan to further thin US force deployment throughout the entire Greater Middle East region, in favor of a shift in military emphasis to the Far East. This has already happened, for example, in Somalia. And there are apparently advanced discussions with Iraq regarding withdrawal of at least a portion of the small contingent of US troops stationed there. Syria (also a small contingent, but strategically deployed) could be next.

This gradual but noticeable reduction in the critical mass of American military deployment in the Middle East does at least indirectly affect Israel’s security. Actors hostile to Israel, like Iran, interpret this--correctly or not--as a reduction in the US commitment to Israel’s overall security and, for that matter, to the security of Arab neighbors of Israel like Saudi Arabia. Moreover, removal of US forces from northeastern and southeastern Syria could render Iranian and Iranian-proxy penetration of that country more likely, to Israel’s direct detriment.

There are some bizarre indirect links, too. For example, among the ethnic militias now forming in Afghanistan to oppose the resurgent Taliban are apparently Shi’ite Hazaras who fought for Iran in Iraq and Syria with the proxy Fatemiyoun brigades. The Israel Air Force reportedly has targeted these Iranian proxy forces on Syrian soil, where they contribute to Iran’s attempt to project a direct threat to Israel.

But all in all, Israel is not an issue in the Afghanistan withdrawal, which directly affects the security of immediate neighbors: Iran, Pakistan, and China.


Q: There is growing discussion in the United States of possible security ramifications of withdrawal for America such as a renewed al-Qaeda threat, and of the consequences of abandoning a weak Kabul government as well as Afghan translators and drawing down a prolonged investment in Afghan democracy and human rights. Were there comparable consequences when Israeli occupation of Arab lands was followed by withdrawal?

A: When Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000 it left the Southern Lebanese Army, a Christian-led proxy force it had begun to form even before the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, vulnerable to retribution by anti-Israel Lebanese forces, particularly Hezbollah. Many SLA personnel and their families were hastily evacuated to Israel, where their problems with absorption and their longing for Lebanon represent to this day a constant reminder of the fiasco of the entire Lebanon invasion and occupation.


Q: The US occupied Afghanistan, then Iraq, with an anti-terrorist agenda, then launched democratization and human rights programs that have had limited results or have been downright destabilizing. Did the Israeli occupations of the West Bank (1967) and southern Lebanon (1982) also have or spawn non-military agendas?

A: Like the US in Afghanistan, Israel in 1967 invaded and occupied the West Bank strictly for security reasons. And like the US, occupation inevitably generated a political agenda. Thus, prior to the Oslo agreements of 1993-94, the West Bank witnessed a number of attempts by Israel to encourage moderate local leaders or traditional tribal leaders to rule under some sort of “village leagues” or autonomy arrangement. All backed down under PLO pressure, or were assassinated by the PLO, until eventually Israel negotiated a transfer of limited power to the PLO itself: the Oslo accords.

In contrast, in Lebanon in 1982 Israel officially had one security objective--to rid the country of the PLO’s presence and remove a threat to northern Israel. But unofficially, in the person of Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and his Israeli supporters and Lebanese Maronite allies, it had two far-reaching political objectives. One was to install Maronite Falangist leader Bashir Gemayel as president of Lebanon and then to negotiate and sign an Israel-Lebanon peace treaty.

A second objective, nurtured at a more abstract level by Sharon, was to cause Palestinian militants to migrate from Lebanon to Jordan, where they would ‘Palestinize’ the country by force. The emergence of a Palestinian state east of the Jordan River, replacing the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, ostensibly would enable Israel to declare that there was no longer a need for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, which Sharon and fellow hawks wanted to hold onto.

Ultimately, nothing came of either political project. The PLO did leave Lebanon, but to Tunisia, not Jordan. A Lebanon-Israel peace treaty signed on May 17, 1983 was a total non-starter, never ratified by either country. Israel’s erstwhile Lebanese ally, the Falangists, proved to be paper tigers who wanted to sacrifice Israeli lives while they massacred their Palestinian enemies and courted their Syrian enemy. Israel’s presence helped galvanize Iran’s southern Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, which fought Israel for the next 17 years inside Lebanon and, intermittently since 2000, across the Israeli-Lebanese border.


Q: What has Israel learned from its occupations of neighboring lands?

A: This is a mixed bag. The 1956 occupation of the Sinai Peninsula ran up against heavy US and Soviet pressures to withdraw. Israel did so, in exchange for disarmament arrangements in Sinai that did not last long and that helped usher in the Six-Day War. Israel learned in 1956 that the world was no longer run by former colonial powers Britain and France, but rather by the two superpowers, one of which it had better have on its side before it occupied any more Arab land.

This explains Israel’s search for a green light from Washington before launching the 1967 Six-Day War. In Sinai, this time the outcome was a territories-for-peace deal with Egypt, including the removal of Israeli settlements, with the world’s blessing. There could have been a similar outcome with Syria--negotiations made progress on several occasions--if its leadership were more moderate and coherent. But as time went by, a security consensus emerged in Israel that it needs the Golan Heights for security because Syria is anarchic and not a candidate for peace.

The fate of the Palestinian territories conquered in 1967 has been different because their very occupation sparked a wave of nationalist-messianic fervor in Israel that prevails to this day. One reason Ariel Sharon was able to detach Israel from the Gaza Strip is precisely the fact that Gaza is not considered part of biblical Israel. The United States is lucky that in dealing with its occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq it at least has not had to deal with ideological-territorial arguments for not withdrawing.


Q: Why did Israel’s 1982 Lebanon occupation and its 1967 Gaza occupation last so long? Why did these occupations ultimately end?

A: In both cases, the IDF did not have a clearly defined and achievable war objective. Remaking Lebanon was not achievable. A cursory acquaintance with the Maronite Falangists should have told Israeli strategists that they are not a reliable ally. Holding on to the Gaza Strip, one of the most crowded places on earth, and even settling Israelis there, was ludicrous.

Here--the absence of a realistic, achievable and agreed war objective--the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq appears to be in the same boat as Israel was in Lebanon and Gaza. Hence the long, confused occupation. Hence its inevitable end.


Q: Is there a bottom line here somewhere?

A: There is. The Lebanon and Gaza experiences appear to have taught Israeli strategic planners that the IDF must at all costs avoid prolonged occupation. Note that throughout the mini-wars fought by Israel against Hamas in Gaza since 2005, IDF forces entering the Strip have carefully avoided deep penetration and have withdrawn at the first opportunity. During the most recent conflict, in May of this year, the IDF avoided entering the Strip altogether. By the same token, in the 2006 Second Lebanon War the IDF force that invaded southern Lebanon made clear its intention to withdraw to the international border, a move for which Israel sought and received United Nations supervision and sanction.

Nor, as we saw in the West Bank prior to 1993, is occupation fertile ground for the occupier to nurture a compliant local leadership. In Lebanon, the 1983 peace treaty could not survive because it was signed with a treacherous neighboring regime installed in power under Israeli occupation. Indeed, in 1983 parts of Lebanon were also under Syrian occupation.

Note, in this respect, the problematic fate of the Oslo accords, signed in 1993-94 with exiled Palestinian leaders who then returned to semi-occupied Palestinian territories, and in contrast the very different perspective (at least thus far) of the Abraham Accords, signed in 2020 with distant Arab countries that do not border on Israel. When Israel has confused occupation with politics, it has paid a price.

Over to the United States. Has it learned from Afghanistan to avoid occupying and democratizing? America’s Afghanistan and Iraq adventures appear to indicate that Washington learned little from its earlier fiasco in Vietnam. Does superpower status then dictate unique military behavior in the international arena? Presidents Obama, Biden and, yes, even Trump, have wanted to end ‘forever wars’ and occupation.

And the next president? A lot depends on whether the Taliban fades from the news following US withdrawal, or--in stark contrast--again hosts al-Qaeda-type Islamist terrorists who attack America or its interests and armed forces.

Back to Israel and the ongoing occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The current Israeli ultra-nationalist, messianic mainstream no longer considers these territories occupied, but rather ‘liberated’. Yet three million Palestinian inhabitants consider themselves to be very much under occupation. So does the Arab world, though it is increasingly indifferent. So does the rest of the world, whose interest ebbs and flows with the fortunes and misfortunes of the occupation. Note the widespread international protests and outbursts of anti-Semitism when the recent Gaza conflict overflowed into Israel, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The fate of this “last” Israeli occupation--the West Bank--currently appears to be not a two-state solution but rather shared Jewish-Arab decline into a conflicted single entity that keeps Israelis and Palestinians everywhere in some form of conflict. In contrast, America’s occupation issues in the Greater Middle East have involved security and ill-fated economic and nation-building aspirations. But the US in the Middle East does not share Israel’s ideological-historical West Bank legacy.